Keeping our writing business afloat isn’t easy. Simon Whaley chats to two writers who’ve found diversification has led to calmer seas.
Many writers dream of giving up the day job and writing full-time, which can be challenging in today’s environment. One way of making it a reality is to offer our writing skills to other sectors of the creative writing industry. In fact, it can make good business-sense to diversify, because if one area of work suddenly goes quiet other busier areas help keep the money flowing in. This maintains our motivation as well as our bank balance. All businesses experience ebbs and flows, but those who’ve diversified often find the waters are less choppy.
However, it’s important to expand into new markets in the right way. Diversify too much and you risk leaving yourself with no time to write. Choose the wrong writing sideline and you might find it also stifles your own creativity. Do it right and it can be surprising where these new markets take you.
Diversification – Past Experience
Drawing upon previous work experience can be a useful diversification step. Sue Johnson, author of The Yellow Silk Dress (Indigo Dreams Publishing), is celebrating tens years as a self-employed writer, but before that she used to teach. However, she now draws upon those tutoring skills today to teach creative writing as a means of augmenting her writing income.
‘I went self-employed in 2005,’ says Sue. ‘For four years before that I taught writing and art workshops for students with mental health problems. I enjoyed teaching, but not the forest of paperwork that went with it, so I decided to start my own workshops locally.’
Sue runs a series of workshops at the Number 8 Community Arts Centre in Pershore, and she’s also a tutor for Writing Magazine’s creative writing courses. ‘Several writers I knew were Writers’ News Home Study tutors and they suggested that I put in an application. I did so, not expecting to be taken on.’ But she was and she enjoys seeing her students flourish. ‘It’s great to see students grow in confidence and become published writers. I feel lucky to be doing exactly what I said I wanted to do when I was eight years old and asked ‘that’ question in school. So if I can inspire a few more to follow in their dream too that’s great.’
The reason Sue’s diversification into tutoring and workshop facilitation works well is because she’s able to draw upon two skills she enjoys using: teaching and creative writing. It also keeps her busy.
‘There is strength in diversity!’ Sue agrees. ‘I’m a published poet, short story writer and novelist. I’ve also published books aimed at helping other writers. Writers’ block doesn’t get a look in because if I get stuck on one thing I switch to something else. By the same token, having different strands to my business – workshops, home study tutoring, doing critiques, talks, organising and judging competitions – means that there’s never time to get bored or worry unduly if some events don’t run or don’t go as well as expected.’
It’s always worth considering whether another income stream may generate peak workflows at similar times to some of your other work. Tutoring on distance learning courses can have peaks in September, when people get in the ‘back to school’ frame of mind, and also in the new year, when they’re still fired up with that New Year’s resolution to learn something new.
Diversification may help bring in more money, but it can take time to build up that new income stream. ‘I put in some very long days,’ says Sue. ‘Be persistent and patient. Don’t expect things to work perfectly the first time you try them. Keep going until you get the writing life that you want.’
Diversification – Self-Improvement
Diane Parkin, who by the time this piece appears in print will have just got married and now have one of the best writing surnames on the planet (Wordsworth), has written articles and short stories for magazines and newspapers since 1985, and she posts regularly on her Tales from Baggins Bottom blog (www.bagginsbottom.wordpress.com). She diversified into proofreading and editing but did so because she was looking at ways in which she could become a better writer.
‘I’ve always been interested in knowing how I can do the best job possible to help my colleagues,’ says Diane, ‘and I’ve always asked to do a time-swap with them so I know what challenges they face and how I can make their job easier. Very early on in my writing career I wanted to move to the other side of the editing desk, temporarily, for the same reason – to see what I could do to make their job easier and so make me the ideal freelance and, therefore, easy for them to hire.’
As a result of this Diane spent several years as a sub-editor for a variety of trade magazines, and also did proofreading and editing work for publishers Pen & Sword. This provided the mainstay of her income, but following her recent marriage, she’s now in a position to change her work priorities. ‘Editing and proofreading has formed the bulk of my business because for the first three years I only had me to support myself and I needed guaranteed income in order to pay the bills. It was probably 98% of my total business by this time. However, since meeting Ian, he has been very supportive of my own writing work and I’m gradually phasing the editing and proofreading down and looking to increase my own writing work again. By the end of this year, I’m hoping it settles into a 50/50 ratio.’
So how has this helped Diane’s self-improvement? ‘While I’m smugly correcting silly mistakes in others’ work, I have to swallow that pride when I notice I’m doing exactly the same thing. So it helps me to better edit and proofread my own work.’
But it’s also helped her writing career in other ways, too. Having that understanding of what an editor has to do and some of the common problems they face means she’s now able to apply that knowledge to her own writing. ’One editor said that he could always rely on me to write exactly to brief and he’d be able to just drop my work into place without having to do anything about it. Because of that, whenever he was stuck or someone let him down at the last minute, he could always ask me to do something and he knew it would be on time, to the right length and everything.’
For many writers the obvious sidelines to consider are proofreading, editing, or teaching. However, just because you have word skills to draw upon that doesn’t mean all of these sidelines are right for you. Like Sue Johnson, Diane has diversified in the past and taught creative writing, both in the adult education sector and for distance learning courses, but discovered it had a negative impact upon her own writing. ’I found encouraging others to discover their creativity drained my own.’
The whole point of diversification is to bring in additional money to enable you to write, not to sap your muse.
Diversification – Saying Yes
I supplement my writing income, like Sue Johnson, by facilitating writing workshops and tutoring for distance learning courses. But I’ll consider any work that comes my way. That’s what I like about the business of writing. You never know what opportunities may arise, and sometimes it isn’t always writing-related.
I always try to offer my own photos, where possible, for any articles I write, and I’ve always seen myself as a writer who happens to take photos. Over the years I’ve had numerous pieces published by The People’s Friend, and one of their editors got in touch to ask if I could help them out. They were linking up with the charity Age UK and were planning a monthly series of articles about life in an Age UK charity shop. The charity’s PR department were providing the words, but they couldn’t supply any photos. The editor needed someone to visit a shop on a regular basis and take some photos. Was I interested?
My gut reaction was to say no: I usually take landscape photos for my travel and walking pieces, because scenery tends to stand still and you don’t have to tell it to smile and push its chest out. But I said yes, and it’s turned out to be a really enjoyable job. I’ve met some fantastic people and, as well as being paid for it, I can also add the published photos to my next DACS claim. (See WM March 2015, page 49 about claiming for DACS.) I’ve since had another magazine ask me if I could go and check something out for them and take some photos, so photography-only work is a new sideline that is developing for me. (Excuse the pun!)
Sometimes, the sideline work leads to other work you may not have considered. As a distance-learning course tutor I was used to marking students’ assignments, but one day the course provider asked me if I was interested in writing a new course for them. Again, my initial thoughts were no; I’d never written training material before. But I had written several non-fiction books, so I could draw upon this experience to create the course material. I’ve now written four distance-learning courses, along with their associated assignments and updated one of the company’s existing courses. So diversifying into tutoring actually led to more writing work for me.
Sometimes, being a full-time writer is about ditching the pre-conceptions of being a full-time writer. Diversification can give us a far more interesting and varied working life. And from a business perspective it also keeps the bank manager happy.
Diversification Top Tips
Sue Johnson’s Diversification Tip: ‘Think carefully about what you love doing – and what you don’t. For instance, if running workshops isn’t for you then think of something else.’
Diane Wordsworth’s Diversification Tip: ‘Try and find work within the same field or industry, because you’re likely to enjoy it more and it will feel less of a chore. Do whatever makes you happy first if you can, and if you can’t, try to make the second-best job temporary.’
Simon’s Diversification Tip: ‘Never dismiss a work opportunity out of hand. You never know what it may lead on to.’
© Simon Whaley